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“What Bliss Beyond Compare!”
Isaiah 65:17-25


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost—November 13, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Early in my ministry I visited a shut-in member of the congregation who was over 100 years old.  As I often do, I asked if she had any favorite hymns she would like me to sing for her.  I will never forget her answer.  With great longing and emotion she said, “Oh, Pastor, sing me that song about Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,

Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice opprest.

I know not, oh, I know not, what joys await us there,

What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare!

How can the Lord describe heaven for us in a way we will be able to understand?  To what can you compare the incomparable?  How can you describe the indescribable?  The joys of heaven are so far beyond and above anything we experience here on earth, it is impossible for us to comprehend.  “What Bliss Beyond Compare!”

Of course, the most important thing to know about heaven is how to get there.  We have lots of jokes about meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates.  But, St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians and Acts, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. . .  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with righteousness.”  In truth, one day you will stand, not before St. Peter, but before the judgment seat of Christ himself.

It will then do you no good to plead innocent, for we all have sinned and fall short of the holiness God requires.  As Hebrews warns, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of God, to whom we must give account.” And St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “When the Lord comes he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”

You are guilty, and you deserve from the Judge the judgment of eternal damnation in hell.  It will then do you no good to expect time off for good behavior, as Isaiah says, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” in the sight of God.  It is impossible for you to ever do enough even to begin to make up for your sins and wickedness.

There is only one way to get to heaven, only one way to enter through those pearly gates.  “I am the gate,” Jesus says, “whoever enters through me will be saved. . .  Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you also may be.  You know the way to the place where I am going. . .  I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

For us men and for our salvation the Son of God came down from heaven and was made man, and was crucified also for us, died and was buried, and the third day he rose again from the dead.  He did it all for you, as your substitute, to make up for all your sins and shortcomings with his holiness and perfection.  Jesus bore your sins in his body on the cross, with the atoning sacrifice of his suffering and death paying the penalty for all our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 

When you stand before the judgment seat of Christ he will declare you not guilty.  Not because you are innocent; not because you have done enough good works to make for your sins; but because the Judge himself has already endured for you all the punishment your sins deserved, as your substitute.  He already served the sentence for you, in your place.  On account of his life, suffering, death, and resurrection, your sins are all forgiven, because the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses you from every sin.

Actually, you will receive time off for good behavior, just not your good behavior.  You will receive eternal time off from hell because of Jesus’ good behavior for you, his perfect and sacrificial death on your behalf.

Martin Luther puts it beautifully in the Small Catechism: “[He] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. . .  On the Last Day he will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.  This is most certainly true.”

The most important thing to know about heaven is how to get there.  Trust in Jesus; he is the gate, he is the way, the truth, and the life; he has prepare a place there for you, and take you to be with him.

But, the question remains, what does heaven hold?  What awaits us in that bliss beyond compare?

In today’s Old Testament Reading, Isaiah struggles to portray the perfect bliss of heaven, to describe the indescribable in a way we can understand.  “Behold,” says the Lord, “I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” 

The Last Day will be the end of the world as we know it, for heaven and earth will pass away and God will make all things new.  And what are “the former things” that “will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind”?  Things like suffering, pain, sadness, disappointment, grief, sorrow, all the bad things of this world, all that “will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Revelation puts it this way: “For the old order of things has passed away.”

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. . .  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” 

To what to do you compare the incomparable?  Isaiah describes heaven for us as being like the great holy city of Jerusalem, but a glorious new Jerusalem, an image frequently found throughout the Bible.  As Hebrews says, “We are looking for the city that is to come. . . whose architect and builder is God.”  St. John puts it this way in his vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . .  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

Every year a list is published of the most livable cities in America, and our own Union County has been ranked as one of the “Best Place to Live” in the United States. But, imagine a city where there is no crime, no homelessness, no hunger, no illness, not even any death.  Imagine such a perfect city—wouldn’t you want to live there?  That’s how Isaiah describes heaven, that’s the image he uses to give us some idea of that bliss beyond compare.

“‘For I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy,’ says the Lord.  ‘I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.  Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.  They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.  They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.’” 

All this is Isaiah’s way of saying, “The old order of things has passed away.” “Behold,” says the Lord, “I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

“Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.”  This is Isaiah’s way of describing what theologians call the “beatific vision,” which means the blessed, direct vision we finally will have of God in heaven. 

Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” Here on earth we see God only through the means of the Word and Sacraments.  We cannot comprehend the mysteries of the faith, and often we don’t fully understand God’s plans and purposes for us. 

But, the Apostle John says that in heaven, “we shall see him as he is.”  In heaven we will finally see God face to face, and know and understand all things.  Ultimately, that is what heaven consists of, the “beatific vision,” directly united with God.  As the book of Revelation says, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

“Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.”  Isaiah’s way of saying there will be peace, perfect peace, in heaven.

“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  But dust will be the serpent’s food.”  That old snake, the devil, is crushed by the Messiah, as the Lord declared already in Genesis, “He will crush your head.”  That old snake, the devil, is rendered harmless, just as predicted.

“But dust will be the serpent’s food.  ‘They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.”  Like Mt. Olympus in ancient Greece, or the Acropolis at Athens, or Mt. Fuji in Japan, ancient Jerusalem was situated on a holy mountain, Mt. Zion, and crowned with a great Temple.  But, although the name “Jerusalem” means “City of Peace,” this holy mountain has been anything but peaceful.  Jerusalem has actually been embroiled in wars throughout most of its 3,000 year history.  When modern archaeologists began excavating Jerusalem they were surprised to discover layers of rubble up to 60 feet deep, showing that over the centuries the “City of Peace” has been repeatedly besieged, captured, destroyed, and rebuilt dozens of times. 

Actually, the earthly Mt. Zion is probably one of the most violent places in the history of the world.  But, the new Jerusalem with be a perfect paradise, on a peaceful, holy mountain, where we and all God’s people will experience the beatific vision of his glory.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.’”  “What Bliss Beyond Compare!”

The joys of heaven are so far beyond and above anything we experience here on earth, it is impossible for us to comprehend.  To what can you compare the incomparable?  How can you describe the indescribable?

Isaiah paints us a picture of heavenly paradise.  It is a picture that is a little abstract, a little hard for us to understand, but it gives us some idea of the joys that awaits us there:  All things new, all the bad things of this world passed away.  No more weeping or crying, but joy and delight.  No more illness or death, but eternal life and perfect peace.  Like a city where everything is perfection. Wouldn’t you want to live there?

They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song . . .

O sweet and blessed country . . . that eager hearts expect . . .

I know not, oh, I know not, what joys await us there,

What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare!

Amen.

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